Straight talk from the D.C. Auditor

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What we know about crime

Holes in the "ecosystem"

Published March 4, 2024

Tomorrow, the D.C. Council is poised to approve a massive public safety bill as its contribution to addressing crime and the public’s fear of crime. That fear, based on a surge in juvenile car thefts and stubborn statistics on homicides rising in D.C. while dropping in most other major cities is seen as the fuel behind efforts to recall two members of the Council.

But what do we actually know? Who is doing what, and who has done what, that is relevant to crime and the fear of crime in the District of Columbia? In the last four years the Office of the D.C. Auditor has published comprehensive reports with findings and recommendations touching many of the alphabet soup of agencies in the District’s criminal justice “ecosystem.”

Below, in detail, is what those reports tell us.  In summary, though, here is what our recent work says: agencies whose purpose includes preventing and solving crime and mitigating the effects of crime are not performing as they should to have maximum impact on crime reduction.

Solving and fighting crime

The failure to quickly and collaboratively restore the Department of Forensic Sciences (DFS) to full performance has limited the availability of sworn members of the MPD to perform patrol and investigative functions.

Our second of two reports on the Neighborhood Engagement Achieves Results Act (NEAR Act) looked at the (DFS) Crime Scene Sciences Division (CSSD) and found that DFS used its statutory authority to rehire retired police officers on a transitional basis but has not met the longer-term goal of fully staffing CSSD with civilian forensic scientists.

That has meant that active-duty Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) officers continue to help operate CSSD, contrary to a longstanding goal of civilianizing the division so officers can return to other police duties.

We repeated those findings in written testimony for the confirmation hearing of MPD Chief Pamela Smith on September 23, 2023: the Bowser Administration’s original plan was to have DFS assume full control of crime scene response by FY 2018, a goal still not reached.

When our NEAR Act audit began there were still 24 active-duty MPD officers assigned to crime scene response. At the end of the audit period the number had dropped to just seven, but the limited staff overall remains a pressure on MPD resources.

Because of shortages DFS can’t respond quickly to a crime scene. Evidence can be lost or contaminated. Second, the crime scene reports that detectives need to investigate and prosecute cases may be delayed. Third, MPD officers often must “hold the scene” until DFS arrives which means those responding officers are delayed in returning to patrol just as detectives are delayed in pursuing the investigation. Failure to meet that 2018 DFS goal of civilianization has been a factor in limiting MPD resources.

Investigating and prosecuting crime

The forensic lab’s loss of accreditation that has severely hampered the investigation and prosecution of crime was a result of administrative, supervisory and oversight failures across the criminal justice ecosystem.

Our December 1, 2022, report, DC Forensics Lab Fails to Achieve Independence traced the legislative, budget, and operational history that led to the lab’s second loss of accreditation in its relatively young life. In 2011 the Council sought to create an independent, best-in-class forensic laboratory. With opposition to full independence from the U.S. Attorney’s Office (USAO) and the Gray Administration the law was weakened on final passage.

The audit found a persistent lack of resources for DFS compounded by regulations written by the Bowser Administration and approved by the Council that gave agency management and not the Science Advisory Board the effective final say in oversight which was contrary to the original goal of independence.

Criminal justice system partners, the USAO and the D.C. Attorney General, failed to use a statutory Stakeholder Council or the oversight board to address their legitimate concerns, turning instead to their own external auditors to expose problems rather than working in collaboration with the Bowser Administration.

Having contributed to the DFS oversight failures by weakening the Board, the Administration then failed to step up to address prosecutor concerns, recruit and hire an experienced new director, and empower the Science Advisory Board.

As a result, largely of inaction, the District’s forensics lab has lacked full accreditation for the last three years, severely hampering forensic testing needed to prosecute crimes.

Dispatching timely emergency help

The Mayor’s refusal to acknowledge failures of the District’s 911 system seriously delayed recruiting and hiring so shifts at the Office of Unified Communications (OUC) could be fully staffed and all calls answered according to national standards. 

Our October 19, 2021 report, The District’s 911 System: Reforms Needed to Meet Safety Needs reviewed the OUC 911 system against national standards including a review of 2019 and 2020 call metrics, a sample of 911 call recordings, an evaluation of OUC culture and training, and a review of OUC’s technological capabilities and internal investigations.

The audit found OUC did not meet national standards in getting timely help to callers needing emergency medical assistance. On all top priority Fire and Emergency Medical Services calls the OUC did not meet national standards for the majority of the 24 months in 2019 and 2020. The report found insufficient supervision and a lack of quality assurance follow-up to ensure uniform compliance.

To address the delays and well-reported errors we recommended major increases in staffing and supervision including increasing the total number of OUC shift supervisors from 11 to 38. We have tracked our recommendations since October 2021. It was not until 2023 that there was any significant increase in staffing at the OUC. Progress has been made in recent months and in January 2024, 17 shifts out of 66 were reported as not fully staffed—an improvement over the previous six months. While that is an improvement it’s still too large a number more than two years after ODCA’s audit was published.

Interrupting the cycle of violent crime

The District has multiple efforts underway to interrupt violence but agencies are not measuring those efforts in a meaningful way to know what is working, what can be improved, and how. While ODCA reports note failures to refine promising programs, new initiatives have been launched.  

Our report, NEAR Act Violence Prevention and Interruption Efforts: Opportunities to Strengthen New Program Models, found that the Office of Neighborhood Safety and Engagement’s (ONSE) Pathways Program has been reaching the target group of community members, those at risk of being victims or perpetrators of violence.

But we also found that ONSE was not effectively tracking and reporting on post-program employment and victimization data to assist in ensuring that the program is having the intended impact and to adjust as evidence warrants.

We recommended tracking and reporting on employment and victimization data but in the latest update on compliance with ODCA recommendations ONSE officials indicated they continue to have discussions with sister agencies on receiving assistance in tracking these program outcomes. The program was budgeted at $7.5 million in FY 2023.

Similarly, another promising intervention to prevent crime – the Hospital-based Violence Intervention Program (HVIP)—is not collecting and assessing data to know its effect or improve services to enhance the impact.

Our first NEAR Act report heralded an expansion to the HVIP, noting that it would now rank as the first citywide publicly funded HVIP in the nation, connecting victims of violence with services from the hospital bedside. ODCA recommended that the Office of Victim Services and Justice Grants (OVSJG), which funds and administers the program, collect performance data on specific services provided, but that recommendation has not been followed.

The agency’s response to our recent recommendation compliance report: “HVIPs and OVSJG do not currently have the capacity to collect this information. As capacity increases, OVSJG will consider options for additional data measures that would not overburden HVIPs while also providing the public with meaningful and useful insight to HVIP performance.”

Prosecuting use-of-force by MPD

The U.S. Attorney’s Office does not issue detailed explanations when declining to prosecute lethal uses of force by MPD depriving MPD leadership, the Council, and the community of important information that could help drive improvements in police performance and oversight.

In the wake of George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis in 2020 ODCA contracted with The Bromwich Group to undertake case studies of officer-involved fatalities that occurred in the District in 2018 and 2019 then added two such deaths that occurred in 2020 to the case studies. The first of three reports, The Metropolitan Police Department and the Use of Deadly Force: Four Case Studies 2018-2019 assessed the quality of MPD’s internal investigations and included a recommendation directed to the U.S. Attorney’s Office (USAO).

The report called for the USAO “to prepare and issue detailed declination letters, as prosecutors in other jurisdictions do.” The report cited as an example the information made public by the District Attorney in Mecklenburg County, North Carolina, which includes:

…the legal standards for the use of deadly force in general, and the use of deadly force by a law enforcement officer in particular; the facts of the incident; the evidence reviewed by the District attorney, including physical and video evidence; and ultimately reaching a conclusion as to whether the evidence in the case would be sufficient to prove to a jury that the officers had violated the law. The photographic evidence, autopsy reports, officer statements, and other evidence are attached to the report as exhibits, allowing the public to confirm the accuracy of the District Attorney’s factual statements. (page 102)

ODCA’s recommendation compliance report published February 8, 2023, included an email response from U.S. Attorney Matthew Graves explaining why the office issues only a press release on declinations with a “high level understanding of the major facts.” He wrote:

For a variety of reasons, we do not think it defensible to have a practice of issuing declination reports for officer-involved fatalities.  If there are extraordinary cases like we have seen in a handful of instances across the country over the last 15 years, we may consider whether such a report is warranted. In general, though, we believe that our current practice strikes the right balance between giving the community some visibility into our decision-making while guarding against the considerations that weigh against disclosure.”

Expanding contributions to crime prevention

The administration failed to fully comply with legislated mandates to seek outside expertise on homicide elimination and community policing, depriving both the public and experts of opportunity to contribute to crime prevention.

ODCA’s second report on the NEAR Act, NEAR Act Police Reforms Advance Procedural Justice but Data Initiatives Stall, focused on police reforms, particularly, the report notes, “non-law enforcement approaches to build community trust and cooperation in fighting crime.” One example was a mandated Community Policing Working Group to “review national best practices for police-community partnerships to prevent crime and address its root causes.”

The Council committee report on the legislation described the working group as “a way to promote ‘genuine stakeholder engagement’ rather than a tough on crime incident response.” The bill also reinstated a Comprehensive Homicide Elimination Strategy Task Force and both groups would include non-government members and experts. Neither mandated group received effective support from senior government officials.

ODCA recommended appointing “a Community Policing Working Group of 10 to 15 members to examine national best practices in community policing on an ongoing basis to fulfill the initial intent of the law.”

These findings and recommendations are just a few examples of shortcomings previously identified in policies and programs designed to prevent, mitigate, and solve crime in the District.

Council legislation is a piece of the puzzle. It is not an end in itself. What’s needed and too often absent: a recurring cycle of implementation, evaluation, legislative oversight, and improvement to meet the desired ends.

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